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AFCON 2021: Umar Sadiq is pissing his Super Eagles chance away

January 20th 2022, 7:38:00 am

For a player who once defined himself by seizing an opportunity, the Almeria man is letting himself down in Cameroon.

Almeria Striker, Umar Sadiq

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Nigeria’s depth in attack is the ease with which they have shrugged off the absence of Victor Osimhen.

To be sure, the Napoli striker remains a huge miss. Increasingly under the previous management, Osimhen came to define Nigeria’s attacking strategy, and his unavailability, as well as that of Paul Onuachu (also through physical incapacity), effectively stripped Nigeria of their top two centre-forwards for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

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For context, that is the equivalent of Algeria losing both Baghdad Bounedjah and Islam Slimani, or Senegal losing both Boulaye Dia and Famara Diedhiou.

However, the misfortune of one often presents an opportunity to another, both in football and in life more generally, and so it has turned out. However, while Taiwo Awoniyi has seized upon his chance to establish himself as the Super Eagles’ leading man, Almeria’s Umar Sadiq has been one of the big disappointments for Nigeria so far.

When Osimhen broke his face on Milan Skriniar’s head in late November, it sparked despair and worry among fans and observers alike. The prognosis for AFCON seemed bleak.

However, the reality of things has been quite different.

Two wins from two at AFCON has instantly catapulted Nigeria into the tier of favourites, and the performances have been largely positive. Even more eye-catching is the identity of Nigeria’s goalscorers: the Super Eagles’ tally to this point is evenly accounted for by the front four.

So, nothing to worry about then, yes? Not so fast.

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Osimhen’s place upfront is ostensibly filled by Awoniyi, who got off the mark in comical fashion against Sudan. The Union Berlin striker has completed a remarkable career renaissance, taking the scenic route to spearheading the Super Eagles attack.

However, while some aspects of the role have come easily to him – in particular, occupying defenders – others have not.

Awoniyi has struggled in terms of challenging in the air, winning only one of 11 aerial duels. The 24-year-old has also often found good positions, and been presented with opportunities, but so far he has failed to translate those chinks of light into goals.

The numbers bear this out: taking away penalties, only Vincent Aboubakar, who has played one game more, has taken more shots (nine), and no one has accumulated more Expected Goals (xG) – a measure of the quality of shots – than his 2.38.

This is where Sadiq comes in.

Sadiq has been here before.

The former Roma starlet rose to prominence in Nigerian football circles as part of the squad to the 2016 Rio Olympics football event, starring as Samson Siasia’s side claimed a bronze medal.

It could all have been so different though.

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As preparation for the Olympics began, Sadiq was actually behind Awoniyi and former Al Ahly forward Junior Ajayi, both of whom had played important roles during the qualifying process, in the striker pecking order.

However, when the final squad was named, Awoniyi was cut; then, on the eve of the tournament, Ajayi sustained an injury that would keep him out for much of that run in Brazil.

Forward stepped Sadiq, who went on to score four times, displaying his unique brand of ungainly disruption in the process and drawing heavily generous comparisons to a similarly gangling Nigerian Olympics striker of yesteryear.

Kanu he was not though; the trajectory of his career since has been far from stellar. It has taken in spells in the Netherlands, Scotland and Serbia, and has been marked by inconsistency at every turn. He famously fell out with current Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard at Rangers, and evoked bemusement when he was pictured up in the stands on his phone during a UEFA Europa League match while with Partizan.

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Moving to Spanish club Almeria in late 2020 does seem to have given him a new lease on life though, and he has been influential in the Andalusian club’s push for promotion to La Liga. So far, he has scored 31 goals in 64 appearances for los Rojiblancos. There were few objections when he was named in the Super Eagles squad for AFCON, and there was actually some expectation that he would challenge for a starting spot.

Unlike in 2016 though, Sadiq has failed to seize an obvious opportunity.

While Awoniyi has been the designated starter so far in Cameroon, his performances have hardly been faultless. There is room there for improvement; enough of an opening for anyone willing to fight for a place.

Instead, Sadiq’s cameo displays have been a study in lethargy.

Against Egypt, he came off the bench and produced a surprisingly weak and naive showing, neither able to put himself about in holding the ball up nor having the presence of mind to avoid giving away needless fouls. The second match against Sudan was not much better, as he overran one the ball in one promising situation and, once again, lacked power.

The towering striker is a handful on his best day, capable of ragdolling defenders and possessing crushing power in either foot, while also being a deft finisher.

None of those gifts have come across in Cameroon. Worst of all is that it is very likely all in his head.

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Sadiqi is, oddly enough, the type to struggle in low-pressure situations, and seems to quickly lose mental and emotional investment when things are too easy. On a hattrick, he will sometimes go for something elaborate just to amuse himself and see if he can pull it off. It is an attitude that is equal parts frustrating and fascinating, and contrasts markedly with Awoniyi’s businesslike demeanour.

It explains Sadiq’s seeming nonchalance coming off the bench, but does not excuse it. If he does not start, he is likely to turn in an apathetic performance; however, if he cannot show urgency or hunger in helping see out a result, there is little reason to trust him from the start.

It is the ultimate chicken-and-egg scenario, but he cannot rightly expect to be given the benefit of the doubt with nothing coming back.

To be as bad as he has been is also a sad abdication for a player of Sadiq’s talent, and if he is to avoid becoming a mere footnote, he simply must buck his ideas up, both in training and on the pitch.

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